At the end of 2002 I searched the internet for a contact in Austria after seeing free flights available (pay only tax) on the Ryanair website. I was lucky enough to be contacted by Robb, a birder based in Ebensee, a town in the Austrian Alps, who was extremely helpful and generous in assisting my companion and me on the weekend in the Alps I subsequently booked. In fact, we had a great time, all got on well and Robb invited us back for the Easter period, to stay with him and his family and to look for the rest of the local specialities that had eluded us on the first visit. This was some task, as during the 48 hours we had in and around Ebensee on the first trip, we had only managed to connect with alpine chough, whilst admiring the breathtaking scenery and freezing in the sub-zero temperatures.
And so on 15th April we returned to slightly warmer temperatures and just as spectacular scenery. It had not been a good start. We'd had a lift to the airport, but although the driver turned off the motorway at the right exit, we somehow ended up right back on it. It was 18 miles to the next junction, which meant we had to cover 36 miles before we'd get to the airport. We were already pushed for time and with the driver refusing to break the speed limit even slightly, we were doomed. Needless to say, we missed the flight and had to buy another - some eight hours' later and at a cost of an extra seventy-odd quid each. It was a long day in the airport.
I couldn't wait to put the morning's misfortunes behind me when we touched down at Salzburg. First, we headed off for some traditional Austrian food (dumplings with meat), and then it was time to search for the local speciality - the pair of eagle owls which nest within the confines of the city.
As dusk descended on Salzburg, 3 shadowy figures were left scanning the spires and roof tops of the cathedral and St Peter's Church next door. This was a new bird for my companion Matthew and even for me, it would be only my second sighting of this impressively large owl.
At last one of the owls flew in and it was smiles all round, although it was difficult to appreciate its true size atop such magnificent buildings. It flew between the spires in the gathering gloom and appeared to be joined by its mate, although the two were never visible on the rooftops together. Anyway, an excellent start. All back to Robb's after that, for a celebratory Zipfer beer or two.
On our second, and first full day, we enjoyed some of Austria's commoner birds, watching black redstarts in the garden and finding short-toed treecreepers and crested tits in the forests. We visited Mühlleitengraben, where we watched a magnificent golden eagle overhead. Whilst watching this, I noticed a small raptor extremely high up. It turned out to be a hobby in rather unusual habitat, and was presumably passing through the Alps on its way North, perhaps even to Britain. A distant woodpecker tantalized us with a brief period of drumming although it could not be located, and a jay totally confused us with a strange buzzard-like mewing call I had never heard before.
In the evening we stopped off in the Roith area where we failed to see or even hear eagle owl. A repeat of January's visit, it is sufficient to say that I do not rate this site for the species! We did however watch up to 4 species of bats (unidentified) from a bench on the edge of the forest as dusk fell.
The third day was rather poor for birds. We arose at an ungodly hour and visited Obertraun, where we spent most of the morning not seeing woodpeckers. Just like in January. The forest was silent and I blamed my lack of sleep for the faint 'hello? hello?' I kept hearing as I walked the path with Matthew. There was clearly no-one around - I kept looking over my shoulder until at last I realised I'd somehow managed to dial Robb's house with his mobile phone I had borrowed and which was in my pocket, and the voice I could hear was that of his wife Gerti, trying to find out who was at the other end! As is often the case during quiet periods on birding trips, we concentrated on building the 'trip list', with a slight element of competition arising from the fact that some birds had only been seen by one of us. Fairly deflated from the morning's birding and tired from the early start, we slacked off a little after that and took the afternoon off, although Matthew paid a quick visit to the nearby lake where he did well to see penduline tit and serin. I opted for the somewhat less energetic method of birding from the hammock in Robb's garden.
Our fourth day was by far the best and was the saviour of the holiday. The site we visited must ironically remain secret as there is no public access and the existence of our quarry species is not generally known about. We had looked for wallcreepers in Ebensee on our previous visit but had drawn a blank. Now we heard there were sightings of them (from non-birders) at another site and it was this that we were now visiting.
We arrived across a lake by boat and were met at the other end by a guy who drove us to the top of a small mountain (summit 850m) where the wallcreepers had been seen. Wallcreeper heads many a list as 'most wanted' in Britain and it certainly headed my wish list on this trip. After our previous 'dip' I was sceptical, although clearly we were now in more suitable habitat.
As we stepped out onto a small platform to view the rock face, there was a flash of crimson as we flushed a wallcreeper, closely followed by another. For a few seconds we watched the surreal sight of these beautiful creatures, just coming into summer plumage with partly black throats, shuffling around on the rock face flicking lowered wings. There may have been 3 but they soon disappeared. It had all happened so quickly, but constituted a truly memorable occasion for us. We waited about an hour but they did not reappear.
We found a pair of peregrines, which appeared to be nesting on a ledge below us, then we followed the path into some nearby forest. Before we had even reached the trees, a call similar to a green woodpecker's sounded nearby. I had heard this before and recognized it instantly as that of a grey-headed. We soon found the bird and after some careful stalking, had good views of what was clearly a male.
On the way back, we had excellent views of 2 immature golden eagles being mobbed by buzzards just overhead, and along the same stretch of track we glimpsed a firecrest, one of three seen during the week, although many were heard singing. A small pond nearby held a few newts, presumably Alpine newts.
Still buzzing from the morning's sightings, we had a lift back across the lake aboard a speedboat, which provided us with more adrenaline to keep going. Shortly afterwards we were in Ebensee exploring the productive little spot Matthew had come across the previous day. There were no penduline tits but we found a pied flycatcher and up to 4 serins, winging their way around the trees by the sailing club and showing off dazzling yellow rumps.
There were a number of hirundines around us and automatically I started to sift through them, not really expecting to find anything of note. I couldn't believe it therefore when I found a rather chunky brown martin with plain underparts, dark underwing coverts and obvious white tail spots -a crag martin! This was on our hit list and Robb had never seen one in his hometown before - we were at least 15 miles from the nearest known colony. The third new bird of the day for me had been a real highlight - totally unexpected, it had been like finding a rarity in Britain. Awesome.
It was always going to be difficult to follow that day, but on our last, we saw relatively few birds. A green hairstreak butterfly was only the second I had ever seen, but even better was the discovery of a fine, gaudy, black and yellow fire salamander. I had particularly wanted to see one of these and finally we had one, wandering lethargically across the road in front of us. Slightly smaller and clearly less obese than my own differently-coloured pet tiger salamander, this little creature was immediately sketched in my notebook.
Eastern Austria may be better known for its birds, but it's clear that the Alps can also be productive if you know where to look and luck is on your side. We had seen Alpine Chough - but little else - on our first, 48-hour visit (Bad Ischl is the best place but look anywhere at altitude around the ski resorts such as Dachstein) and it's only really snow finch and three-toed woodpecker we have yet to see. We did look for the snow finches up on the cable car at Dachstein - Krippenstein and we had tried for a new bird for Matthew - hazel hen - at Hinterrath. Given enough time, perhaps a flight in to Salzburg, followed by a few days birding in this region, before heading East to Lake Neusiedl, is the best way to enjoy the bird life of this fine country with its impressive snow-capped mountains.
My thanks to Robb and Gerti who were excellent and extraordinarily generous hosts and without whom this trip wouldn't have been possible.